The news media go too far in covering the private problems of public leaders, say most Ventura County teens who entered the latest Times essay contest.
By a ratio of better than 2-1, they described President Clinton, Princess Diana and even Ventura County's own Superior Court Judge Robert Bradley as victims of reporters who pursue sensationalism for profit--at the expense of more important news.
But some essayists wrote that television programs, magazines and newspapers have a duty to tell the public about the character of elected leaders, even if that takes them into the bedroom or the barroom.
"Although many would like to believe that what goes on in the private lives of our public officials is not important to their duties, their behavior at home has a direct and unavoidable impact on their behavior at work," wrote contest winner Nicole Bednarski, a senior at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks. "And because their behavior at work has a direct impact on us, their constituents, the media have a responsibility to report any negative personal behavior of these public officials."
Bednarski, who wins $100 for her entry, was among about three dozen Ventura County high school students to enter the latest in a monthly series of contests sponsored by The Times' Ventura County Edition. Her essay will be published Sunday on the Ventura County editorial page and will be posted on The Times' World Wide Web site at http://www.latimes.com/essaycorner.
February's contest asked students this question: Ventura County Judge Robert Bradley recently was arrested twice on suspicion of drunk driving. President Clinton has been accused in a sex scandal. Are the media paying too much attention to the private business of public leaders, or serving the legitimate interests of citizens?
Some argued that both men are fair game.
"Both Judge Bradley and President Clinton are public officials, holding positions of public trust and directly accountable to the voters," wrote George Fujii, a senior at Westlake High School. "As public servants, rather than private citizens, both officials' private affairs are subject to greater scrutiny than the affairs of a private person."
Vicki Chou invoked the image of tiny spots of mold on the rind of an orange to make her point. "Sometimes superficial imperfections are indicative of deeper flaws, and there are reasons why integrity on all levels is important in a leader," wrote the La Reina High senior. "To expose these potential flaws, it is up to the media to delve even into the private lives of public leaders to ensure the good of the public."
Like many essayists, contest winner Bednarski, a 17-year-old Camarillo resident, distinguished between coverage of Bradley--sentenced last week to 30 days in jail for driving under the influence--and Clinton.
"In the case of Judge Bradley . . . the public has every right to know about his charges, not only because arrests and trials are a matter of public record, but because his actions constitute hypocrisy and poor judgment of the highest order," she wrote.
But "President Clinton's case is a little more complex--the entire investigation thus far is based almost entirely on hearsay, and determining how much bearing this issue has on his duties is difficult."
Although most students said coverage of the Bradley case was necessary, some thought Ventura County newspapers went too far.
"Drunk driving is illegal, but you don't see an average person's name smeared across the front page unless someone has been killed," wrote Bonnylee Smith, a sophomore at Nordhoff High School in Ojai.
As for Clinton, many argued the president has been hounded by the media.
"The media today is making a mockery of our freedom of the press," wrote Audrie Madden of Simi Valley, also a senior at La Reina. They have "already found President Clinton guilty of a crime that as of yet he has only been accused."
Many student essayists wrote that coverage of the accusations against Clinton has yet to prove them relevant to his performance in office. A special prosecutor is investigating whether the president may have had sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then urged her to lie about the affair.
"Questioning the morality of politicians is like wondering if a bicycle can run with square wheels," wrote Newbury Park High School senior Natasha Behbahany of Thousand Oaks. "Clinton's morality has no place in the American eye unless it is proven that illegal actions followed as a result of it."
"We, the public, have a legitimate interest in Judge Bradley's drunk driving and any other activities which may also affect his job performance," wrote Antoinette Hurtado of Somis, another La Reina senior. "However, if a public leader's private business does not affect us, as in the case of President Clinton's sex scandal, then who cares what that leader does behind closed doors?"
"It is none of our business who he has sex with. We should leave that to Hillary," wrote Erika Muro, a senior at Oxnard High School.
"No one is perfect, and to expect that all public leaders be free from faults is unreasonable," wrote Corey Harmon, another La Reina senior. "With these impossible expectations and the current prying of the media, anyone who has ever made a wrong decision will be fearful of running for public office."
Some student essayists said that modest coverage of the Clinton case is warranted, but that the media have gone overboard.
"Citizens do want to know about the Monica Lewinsky case, but they do not need to hear the same speculations every five minutes for weeks and weeks," wrote Gina Pilloni, also a senior at La Reina High. "The media seems to be unable to control itself."
Many cited important news stories--the looming possibility of war with Iraq, in particular--that they said have been overshadowed by coverage of the allegations of a White House sex scandal.
"Our country will probably end up bombing Iraq because our government officials were too busy [worrying] about Clinton's sex life to solve our problems with Iraq diplomatically," wrote Austin Guthals, a Westlake High senior.
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Should Gang Attire Be Banned?
March's essay contest asks Ventura County teens to balance students' rights to safety against their rights of free expression.
The topic: Many schools limit how students dress--banning baggy pants, for example--to curb gang activity. Do such rules infringe unnecessarily on student rights, or are they important to keep campuses safe?
Here are the contest rules:
* Eligibility: Any Ventura County high school student may enter.
* Content: Essays must be no longer than 600 words and be each author's original work.
* Required information: Entries must include the writer's name, age, grade and school. A home address and phone number also must be supplied, but will not be published.
* Deadline: Essays must be received at The Times by noon on March 23.
* Submission: Entries should be mailed or delivered to: Education Page Editor, Los Angeles Times, 93 S. Chestnut St., Ventura 93001. They may be submitted by fax (653-7576) or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
* Judging: Winning entries will be chosen by Times editors for originality, persuasiveness, logic and handling of the mechanics of writing, such as grammar, spelling and syntax. Research and reference to current events will be considered. Decisions are final and within the discretion of The Times.
* Publication: Contestants must agree to publication of their work in the newspaper and on the Los Angeles Times Web site, subject to editing. Entries will not be returned and may be used by The Times, its agents, assigns or licensees, in any manner and any media now known or hereinafter devised. Entries and entrants' names may be used by The Times for promotion purposes.
* Prizes: The winner, to receive $100, will be announced on the Education Page on April 6.